Much like Tim Thomas before him, Roberto Luongo will stay the course despite defeat

1 Comment

If there’s one trend I’ve noticed when people critique athletes, it’s that writers, fans and “experts” often seem to think that players can drastically change their styles at the professional level.

Sometimes it’s true that players can make small changes that yield significant results, but these are usually incremental improvements. Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler and goalie Roberto Luongo are solid examples of players who successfully tweaked their games a bit to improve their value in the NHL.

That being said, it’s tough to ask a player who ascended to the professional level that he’s been doing it all wrong. After all, whatever he does helped him to get this far, so you almost run into a “square peg in round hole” situation.

After allowing a regrettable Game 2 overtime goal in part because of his trademark aggressiveness, many people wanted Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas to change his ways. This sort of armchair criticism ignores the fact that more than nine times out of 10, Thomas makes the save. He doesn’t do that because of inherent size (he’s listed at 5-foot-10) or the soundest goaltending style. What makes Thomas so great is the interpretative dancing style of netminding that combines his flailing limbs, outstanding sense of anticipation and – yes – aggressiveness to form a sum that’s greater than his parts.

Luongo plays a very different (and up to Game 3, more efficient) style than Thomas, but they’re both right in ignoring knee-jerk reactions from game to game. Luongo already adjusted his technique by playing deeper in his goalie crease than he had in previous seasons, but that’s likely an alteration made in part because of suggestions from a goalie coach. This just in: most media members and fans would not fit the bill as goalie coaches.

“I’ve been playing well all year. I think it’s worked out pretty well for me,” Luongo said Tuesday, the day after the 8-1 loss. “I made some adjustments before the year started, so I’m not going to readjust again.”

The Bruins lost the first two games 1-0 and 3-2, although Thomas played well. But when Alex Burrows charged ahead in Game 2, Thomas went out to cut down the angle. Burrows skated around him and continued behind the net, then tucked the puck in the far side 11 seconds into overtime.

“I have a pretty good idea of how to play goalie,” Thomas said with a smile after the loss. “I’m not going to be taking suggestions or advice at this time. I’m just going to keep playing the way I have.”

Unwavering confidence – and a lack of “conscience” about goals allowed – is part of what got both goalies here. Sometimes that could backfire a bit, like some might describe Luongo’s insistence on remaining in net for all of Boston’s 8-1 blowout in Game 3. After going behind 5-1, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault asked Luongo if he wanted to spend the rest of the game on the bench. It probably shouldn’t be that surprising that he said “No.”

“Alain asked me when there was about eight minutes left. I said I wanted to stay in,” Luongo said Tuesday. “If I would have known they would have scored three more times, I might have thought about it.”

The eight-goal barrage on 30 shots increased Luongo’s postseason goals-against average from 2.16 to 2.44 and reduced his save percentage from .928 to .919.

“Even though we were losing, 5-1, it was a pretty intense game and I still wanted to be in there,” he said. “They kept putting the pressure on. We started maybe taking our attention away from our game plan, started worrying about physical aspects of the game, which we shouldn’t be doing at this point.”

Again, this is a match between two elite (and super-confident) goalies. It’s likely that their teams’ performances will make an impact on their own play, but to many, it comes down to Luongo vs. Thomas. Neither party looks to wilt under that spotlight and each will win or lose by the methods that got them here in the first place.

Crosby looking to jump-start offense vs. McDavid, Oilers

Getty
Leave a comment

As fun as the “best hockey player in the world” debate has been through the early weeks of the season, that conversation has deflected some attention from Sidney Crosby not exactly being at his best.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz discussed Crosby’s scoring struggles, noting the belief that it’s “only a matter of time” before number 87 finds his offense again. To be more specific, Crosby hadn’t scored a goal yet, and he still hasn’t; he now sits at zero goals and five assists in six games.

Of course, the Penguins have been off since blanking the Maple Leafs 3-0 on Oct. 18, so it’s not as though Crosby’s added many more goal-less games since then. Even so, that’s given him that much more time to stew over any frustrations that might be lingering – as early as we are in the season, Crosby’s nothing if not a perfectionist – which makes Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers that much more tantalizing.

[More on the best debate from AP; don’t sleep on Crosby’s buddy Nathan MacKinnon]

Could Sidney Crosby finally enjoy a truly transcendent performance against Connor McDavid?

It’s probably bittersweet (and all-too-familiar) for McDavid to review the four Penguins – Oilers games that involved the two superstars:

  • McDavid has been splendid, scoring two goals and five assists for seven points in those four contests.
  • For whatever reason, Crosby hasn’t really taken off in the battle of number 87 vs. number 97, as he’s only generated a single assist.
  • Despite that disparity, the Penguins won all four games.

That last point underscores the fact that hockey is a team sport, and underlines the greatest difference between the two right now: Crosby has a lot more help. After all, Evgeni Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92) finished last season with more points than Crosby, who generated 89 in 2017-18. That trend has carried over to this early campaign, as Malkin has doubled Crosby’s points (12 to 6) heading into Tuesday’s game.

So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to boil down this poster to a boxing or pro-wrestling style poster of Crosby and McDavid staring each other down.

That said, it’s not just the media and fans who are getting revved up for this one. Milan Lucic ranks among those who acknowledge the buzz around this game, as Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports.

“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”

Interestingly, Crosby is playing more of the Gretzky role to McDavid’s Lemieux, at least in broad strokes.

Crosby’s team is deeper, as Wayne’s was during his Edmonton run; McDavid, meanwhile, might feel the same frustrations Mario did (although at least McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and some other quality players Lemieux lacked for some time). Crosby’s the guy who might be at the twilight of his peak, and he has the rings, while McDavid is that magical, almost-alien talent whose ceiling sometimes seems limitless.

This makes for incredible fodder, but again, there’s the question of whether Crosby can slip out of his funk.

Six games don’t give you anywhere near enough of a sample size to get too worried about anything. Much like Tom Brady, we’ve been down this road about wondering if Crosby’s finally hit the wall, only to have that door emphatically slammed shut. Let’s not forget that he’s close to a point-per-game, anyway.

It is, however, fair to note that – for his standards – Crosby has been pretty quiet.

As much as Crosby’s known as a passer, he tends to affect multiple levels of the game, so seeing barely more than two shots on goal per game (13 in 6, or 2.17 SOG each game) is noteworthy. Crosby’s developed into quite the volume shooter over the years, as his career average is 3.28 SOG per game, and last season’s 3.01 per contest marked his career-low.

Again, six games represent less than 1/15th of a hockey season, and Crosby’s adjusting to a new season, not to mention a mixture of wingers. While he’s clearly developed chemistry with mainstay Jake Guentzel over the years, the Penguins have placed his other winger in the old line blender, spitting out the likes of Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust.

You wonder how long the Penguins can ask Crosby’s to carry another forward or two, as he’s managed for so much time. Perhaps this relatively slow start, if nothing else, calls for a little more help.

One way or another, Crosby is almost certain to find answers, and the net. Bonus points if it happens with the spotlight shining during tonight’s game against McDavid and the Oilers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jack Eichel on Sabres’ changes, Dahlin, life as a top pick (PHT Q&A)

Leave a comment

When Evander Kane was dealt last February, the door was opened for Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel to return to his roots and switch from No. 15 to No. 9.

“For a long time, the number nine has always been a part of my identity as both a person and as a player,” the now Sabres captain said in a July statement. “The opportunity opened up to switch and I felt it was the right time to make the change as I begin the next phase of my career as a Sabre.”

Eichel wore No. 9 during his one year at Boston University and when he represented the U.S. as a youth international. The legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard also played a role in why he chose the number.

“He played a lot a long time before me, but my dad was a big fan and my uncle, who was a diehard Canadians fan,” Eichel told NBC during the NHL Players Media Tour last month. “I wore 9 as a kid. That’s the 9 I think about when I think about the number 9. So I just think it’s a really good forward number, fast skater, skill guy, shoots the puck, makes a lot of plays, I think it’s just a great hockey number.”

Eichel and the Sabres are off to a good start in 2018-19, taking 10 out of a possible 18 points through nine games. The captain leads the team in scoring with three goals and nine points. He’s enjoyed his time recently centering Jeff Skinner, who was acquired over the summer as part of general manager Jason Botterill’s continued roster reshaping.

We spoke with Eichel about the changes in Buffalo, Rasmus Dahlin and USA Hockey.

Enjoy.

Q. What will it take for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year?

EICHEL: “I think more than anything just consistency. You gotta bring it every night, so it’s that consistency, it’s that coming together as a group, trusting each other, believing in what we’re doing, and I think we can accomplish that.”

Q. Has the culture changed over the last little while? 

EICHEL: “It has. I think it’s changed more so from the end of last season to now. I think whenever you have little success as we did last year, you’re gonna have to step back and look at what you’ve been doing, probably change some things with the team itself and the culture, and change some things. [They] have done a good job of bringing some new guys in that will kinda get rid of that sour taste that we had the last few years, that haven’t been there before. They are excited with that. You bring in the first overall pick, excitement around the team, and I think just starting a new culture, it should be a winning culture; culture where nothing else is accepted other than the best, and it’s something that doesn’t just happen. It’s accomplished over time.”

Q. What strikes you about Rasmus Dahlin, his maturity? 

EICHEL: “I think a lot of things. I think his game speaks for itself. We all know how good a player he is, he’s a very polite, no ego to him, he’s a really nice kid. I enjoy being around him and we’re very lucky to have him.”

Q. You’ve been through a similar situation as a top of the draft guy. Did you talk to him about it? The expectations? 

EICHEL: “Not so much expectations. I’ve spoken to him a bit, but more so how to handle yourself, what to expect. It’s a bit of a change for him. He’s never lived in the United States before, so he’s going through a lot of new things, and on top of that he’s being asked to play in the NHL, as an 18-year-old defenseman. It’s not easy, but I think the easiest thing for him will be the hockey, everything else will take a little bit of time, but I know he’ll do a great job.”

Q. What has the USA Hockey National Team Development Program meant for hockey in this country? 

EICHEL: “I think it’s been probably one of the most important pieces in the United States’ success the last few years in terms of internationally and producing good players. I think the entity would be an amazing program, and [I’m] so fortunate that I was able to go there. If you go there with the right mindset it’s just amazing what they can do for you. You look at some of the players that come through there and it speaks for itself. And it’s not easy by any means, it’s definitely a pretty tough thing to go through. There’s a lot of adversity as a young 16-year-old to go there and go through the things you go through, and I think majority of the people by the end of it would say it was a great experience. To get so close to your teammates, you learn so much about growing up and you’re really prepared well for the NHL and, ahead after that, business or hockey life. Wherever you’re going, it teaches you a lot of life lessons.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Predators, Sharks aim to extend winning streaks

1 Comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

No team has gotten off to a better start than the Nashville Predators.

Eight games, seven wins, 14 points (tied with Colorado, who has played an extra game) and a five-game winning streak have the Preds sitting pretty atop of the NHL standings early on.

It’s one of those, ‘Nothing to see here’ type of deals. The Predators paced the NHL with 117 points last season and are well on their way to doing so again, led by Filip Forsberg who has five goals and eight points thus far. It’s not really all the surprising.

What’s impressive is the Preds have been chugging along without Pekka Rinne in goal. He’s on the injured reserve at the moment, giving Nashville’s secret (but not so secret anymore) weapon a chance to shine.

Juuse Saros might have the most team-friendly contract given how good he is. Saros took over for Rinne on Saturday after the latter suffered a lower-body injury and hasn’t conceded a goal since, posting a 31-save shutout against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.

Despite their dominance so far, Nashville isn’t taking the 4-3-1 Sharks lightly.

“For me, right now, they’re one of the top teams in the League,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette told the team’s website. “Their record is probably not where it should be based on how they’ve played. They’re just a really high-powered team, they have the puck a lot, they’re in your end a lot and they’re capable of exploding… Looking at the opponent coming in here, it’s going to be tough.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

San Jose, like Nashville, has found its winning touch recently with two straight wins, including a 5-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres and their most recent ‘W’ in a 4-1 triumph over the New York Islanders.

The Sharks have outscored their opponents 9-2 during that time, led by Logan Couture, who has four goals and five points in his past two games and is riding a three-game point streak.

San Jose feels things are starting to click after some changes over the summer.

“We’re comfortable,” forward Joe Pavelski told NHL.com. “Training camp was quick, felt quick. We were getting up to speed for sure. Things are falling into place. Guys are getting used to the League. We have a couple of young guys filling in some important roles. Every year is a little different.”

The Sharks continue to be without Joe Thornton, who is on IR with a knee injury. Despite the loss of Jumbo Joe, the Sharks seem to be doing fine without him. He is on the road trip, although it’s not certain when he will get back into the lineup yet.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Best still to come for MacKinnon; Crosby vs. McDavid set for showdown

2 Comments

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Brendan Gallagher‘s line is slowly turning into one of the best trios in the NHL. (Eyes on the Prize)

• Maple Leafs focusing on work ethic to break out of their slump. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian legalization of cannabis has spawned plenty of questions of how it pertains to the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

• Curtis Joseph has a new book coming out about his life on and off the ice and his tough upbringing. (The Peterborough Examiner)

• The NHL needs a domestic violence policy. (The Varsity)

• He’s one part of one of the NHL’s best shutdown lines, and he’s also one of the league’s best faceoff men. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The NHL season is less than a month old and some are already feeling the heat. (USA Today)

• McDavid vs. Crosby set for Tuesday night showdown. Savor it, hockey fans. (Sportsnet)

• The Canucks are off to a great start, but can they avoid the Crap Mantle? (The Province)

• “Get pucks deep” and all those other garbage cliches are starting to make way for honesty. (The Athletic)

• Why the best is yet to come for Nathan MacKinnon. (ESPN)

• More pot talk: This time, the NHL alumni association says they’d be all in on cannabis if science shows its worth. (The Score)

• Jordin Tootoo believes his NHL career was a great run. (Nashville Post)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck